Chewing Khat: Reflections on The Somali Male Food and Social Somaliland Cyberspace From Maroodi Jeex: Somaliland Alternative Newsletter
Issue number 6 (September/Novemeber 1997)

Chewing Khat: Reflections on The Somali Male Food and Social Life

"When you chew Khat, you are on the top of the planet, but after you spit it out, the planet is on the top of you".

By Mohamed Bali

Khat is defined as the leaves and young shoots of Catha edulis, an ever-green shrub of the family Celestraceae. People in East Africa and southern part of the Arabian Peninsula customarily chew leaves to produce a state of euphoria and stimulation.

Khat leaves contain psychoactive ingredients known as Cathinone, which is structurally and chemically similar to d-amphetamine, and Cathine, a milder form of Cathinone. Fresh leaves contain both ingredients; those left unrefrigerated beyond 48 hours would contain only Cathine which explains users' preference for fresh leaves. This is because Cathinone, the most potent active principle of Khat, is chemically unstable.

Peter Kalix (1986), a noted Swiss scholar of Khat, gave a brief account of Khat and how it is used. Apparently, it was taken socially to induce feelings of pleasure and euphoria, produce excitation, banish sleep, and enhance self-esteem while energy and alertness seem to be increased. It was used as a stimulant to dispel feelings of hunger and fatigue. The chewer becomes communicative and tends toward social interaction, and may develop ideas of greatness, "wisdom" and latent aggressivity. During the chewing there are lively discussions often pertaining to matters of general interest, and in this way the Khat catalyzes social interaction and integration.

In animals, too, Khat produces excitation and increased motor activity. In humans, it is a stimulant producing exaltation, a feeling of being liberated from space and time. It may produce extreme loquacity, inane and childish laughter, and eventually a semi-coma. Upon first chewing Khat, the initial effects were unpleasant and included dizziness, lassitude, tachycardia, and sometimes epigastric pain. Gradually more pleasant feelings replaced these inaugral thoughts. The subjects had feelings of bliss, clarity of thoughts, and become euphoric and overly energetic. Sometimes Khat produced depression, sleepiness, and then deep sleep. The chronic user, a shadow behind glassy eyes and tired face, tended to be euphoric continually.

In his book, The First Footsteps in East Africa, Richard Burton provides one of the earliest detailed accounts, as the first European to enter the forbidden city of Harar, now in Ethiopia. He describes an occasion in Harar where Khat was being chewed in his company:

In Somaliland, Khat chewing remained confined to the mystics and Sufi circles, who used the leafy plant to banish sleep during their Koran recitation sessions, until the 1950s, when a new urban and secular groups took up the chewing of the khat, as Charles Geshekter explains:

In Yemen and the Horn of Africa, Khat is much more than a psychtropic plant. It is the basis of a lifestyle and plays a dominant role in all male activities - celebrations, marriages, business proceedings, and political meetings, as Lancaster explains in a recent article:

Since only fresh leaves have the desired effects, the Khat habit has remained to those areas. It is seedless, and this may explain its limitation to Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen. However, with the development of international travel Khat use tends to spread to countries far away from the areas of cultivation. Khat is now air-freighted and is available in Europe and North America, following the migration routes of the increasing number of immigrants from East Africa and Southern Arabia.

Advocates of Khat use claim that it eases symptoms of diabetes, asthma, and stomach/intestinal tract disorders, and facilitates Somaliland's unique democracy of face-to-face social interactions and negotiations. On the other hand, opponents claim that Khat damages health, suppresses appetite, prevents sleep, and drains the economy. In this note, the magnitude of the social problem and its economic significance is left to the readers to conjecture. There has been much talk on this subject at various levels and times and many groups of "experts" have been commissioned to study Khat in order to recommend banning it or restricting the continued use of it (Elmi, 1987).

Omar Mohammed, possibly the harshest critic of the khat chewing in Somaliland, states, possibly while chewing the Khat itself,

Modalities of Khat Consumption in Rome. Quantity per Session: I bundle, 400g. 20 Subjects.
Temporal PatternNo.%
Only at weekend735
Whenever possible1365
Social pattern
Only alone15
Only with friends1260
Both alone and with friends735
Beverage drunk with Khat
Soft drink alone1785
Alcohol alone15
Both soft drinks and alcohol210
From Paolo Nencini and et al. "Khat Chewing Spread to the Somali Community in Rome", Drug and Alcohol Dependence, v23:255-58 (1989), 257.

References Cited

  1. Burton, Richard. The First Footsteps in East Africa (New York: Preager, 1966 edition).
  2. Elmi, A. "Experience in the Control of Khat in Somalia", Bulletin on Narcotics, v34:51-57 (1987).
  3. Geshekter, Charles. "Anti-Colonialism and Class Formation : The Eastern Horn of Africa Before 1950", International Journal of African Studies, v18:1-32 (1985).
  4. Kalix, Peter. "Chewing Khat", World Health, June 1986.
  5. Lancaster, John. "Chewing the Khat: A Lumpy Dud", Washington Post, May 12, 1997 at B01.
  6. Mohammed, Omar. "Nomads and Women Carry the Burden of Qat", Panoscope, April 1994.


Included in this appendix are media clippings and news stories on Khat for further readings.

Khat in Minnesota

By Joseph Hart, City Pages, July 1997.

FDA Advisory on Khat

TYPE OF ALERT: Automatic Detention. PRODUCT : Catha Edulis (Khat)
PROBLEM : Inadequate directions/warnings (DRDW)

PREPARED BY : Linda A. Wisniowski, DIOP, 301-443-6553. Attachm ent - Import Alert #66-23

Sort of legal. Sort of not. Somali wonder drug. Makes you hot.

By Jeb Blount, Saturday Night/March 1996

Two [Somali] Canadian men suspected of drug smuggling at airport

By David Josar, The Detroit News, July 8, 1997.

Khat Project - Recommended Health Guide For Khat Users

East London and City Drug Services. September 1995.

The safest way to avoid any predictable health risk of excessive khat use is to avoid chewing but if one decides to continue with his/her habit, here are some hints that might be of help to minimise the risks:

  1. Try to reduce your quantity of khat with reasonable intervals between sessions.
  2. Use less Coke and black tea during your khat sessions to reduce your caffeine intake. Milk and ordinary clean water are positive substitutes.
  3. Limit your smoking (if you smoke). Avoid congested sessions. Keep windows open to allow sufficient oxygen into your room.
  4. Eat a balanced diet before and after your session. Avoid late night sessions whenever possible.
  5. Always clean your teeth after every khat session and use regular mouth wash to reduce risks of oral cancer.
  6. Avoid taking other drugs or alcohol during and after your session. Mixing drugs is highly dangerous.
  7. Never take sleeping pills to help you sleep unless prescribed by your doctor.
  8. Sit in a comfortable and relaxed position.
  9. Take regular exercise. 30 minutes of vigorous walking per day could contribute to a lot to your health.
  10. Holding the chewed material in your mouth for a long time increases your risk. This might finally lead to oral cancer.
  11. Avoid khat chewing during the period or pregnancy. This might lead to serious health risks to your baby.